Warning: this blog post contains diabolical and excruciating similes - like a man who grows long black moustaches and greases them into twirls to make himself look more evil, whereas they just make him look like a lion tamer.
Ah, anthologies. The Frankenstein of the book world. Someone’s torso, a leg, an arm, all stitched together and with a bolt through the neck from the editor. Oh, don’t forget the head, and other parts.
My first anthology foray was a piece in our writing college collection Original Sins. That title was original in the way a fat man in a bright orange shirt is individual at a party attended by lots of other people in bright orange shirts, except the other people are all slim.
I’m not a short story writer, I’m a novelist, and my contribution was a cheat in that it was the first chapter from my (at the time unpublished) psychological thriller The Baptist. The wisdom of this choice became apparent when I read out my opening pages at the book launch in the exquisite St Kieran’s College, Kilkenny, to a heaving crowd of friends, family, colleagues and associates. My lasting memory, just before my father hurled me across the bathroom and into the tiled wall, was that Ray’s superior penis had grown embarrassingly large in his death throes. Hushed silence – like the noise birds don't make during a total eclipse of the sun – and I moved on to introduce the next author who had written a poem about a pigeon, or was it a dove?
We flocked to that anthology like Catholics to a confessional. That’s actually not a bad simile and I apologise – not to Catholics as technically I am one, albeit with a small c these days, but for not keeping the simile standards down - like a butcher who promises mechanically extracted meat sausages and they turn out to be 100% beef sausages. We have such devious butchers in Kilkenny. It’s the country air.
The objective of Original Sins was to teach us about the publishing process – the refining, crying, arguing over block alignment or hyphenation – like twenty-two ants in Hackney arguing over who is going to carry the leaf back to the nest just before a size twelve Hindu policeman’s shoe accidentally crushes them into rebirth as new recruits for the London Met. And other joys of the publication process. What it did deliver in spades was validation. We all became published authors overnight. Well, it took about a year. The book became available on Amazon (currently unavailable) and, although it was hardly ever sold via Amazon, garnered a perceptive review on the UK site for posterity - The book was fine, and delivered quickly and efficiently. I only bought it because my cousin had written one of the stories. They were not really good stories but that is not Amazon's fault.
A print run of one thousand copies of Original Sins was hawked around South East Ireland, mostly by Jane who seems to have never recovered, and we split the profits among those of the twenty-two who held out their hands. I reinvested mine in the focussed development of novel ideas, which are best fuelled by alcohol – like a car that runs on an alternative fuel and does 0 to 100 mph in two seconds on pure poitín when the inventor forgot that environmental friendliness and fuel conservation were his goals and not alternative uses for moonshine. Original Sins is now ultimately unavailable – like a super model who men won’t ask out, not because she’s aloof and too good for them all, but because she’s an android with no private parts. Actually, I do have ten copies of Original Sins lurking darkly on my bookshelf.
The bright light of that anthology waxed and waned in the sunny South East of Ireland and I figured Robert Aloysius Barnes you are done with masquerading as a short story writer. I had been exposed – like a fake sign language translator at the funeral of a Nobel Peace Prize winning world leader, except less publicly. Then MarbleCity (my publisher) invited me to contribute a guest piece to their 2013 KnifeEdge Anthology. I was one of twenty-three authors this time, one of them a Booker Prize nominee, the majority of them winners in an online story competition. I was like a black sheep bathed in flour in a herd of white sheep, praying for no rain to fall, moving with the herd and trying not to rub off on any other sheep.
With Knife Edge the publisher made a proper go of it, making the publication available as an e-book on different channels as well as paperback. I murmured about the release on social media – like a hard-of-hearing person who lip-reads others but talks with a hand in front of their own mouth to level the playing field.
Knife Edge sold well around the world and continues to sell, giving exposure for all of the participating authors. My piece in the Knife Edge Anthology was Vendetta, a chapter that had been edited out of my picaresque novel Peril. As a result at least one reader went on to read and review my other books - I first read an unrelated short story by Ruby Barnes. It had promise, but didn’t seem quite finished. It left me hanging, wishing for just a bit more. Well, both Peril and its sequel, Getting Out of Dodge, give a bit more and then some. I felt I had learned a lesson – like someone who has put their hand into the fire when someone else has told them to put their hand into the fire, and has concluded they shouldn’t have done what they themselves in the first place thought was a bad idea. I should have put a proper short story in Knife Edge.
Was R.A. Barnes’s anthology odyssey over with Knife Edge? Far from it. The esteemed Authors Electric convened to produce a cookbook of recipes, both real and metaphorical, and as a recent entrant to the group I was invited to get out my apron and spatula. Twenty authors contributed to CookingThe Books, beaten into shape by the wooden spoon of Debbie Bennett et al. The result was a vast banquet of culinary delights – like a smorgasbord that causes taste orgasms for diners who turn up in latex outfits because they think it’s one of those restaurants like the Blinde Kuh where everyone eats in the dark and no one can see you, but it’s not.
My recipe for Cooking The Books was Preserving The Victim in Alcohol. Bringing together my recurrent themes of fratricide, private parts, home-grown herbs, chickens and booze, I described our family favourite Chicken Saltimbocca in the voice of my serial killer John Baptist. Cover your dissecting table with a double layer of cranial membrane. Totally appetising – like a guest who continually quotes Hannibal Lecter when you’ve served them your best rack of lamb dinner. I haven’t had a lot of feedback on my recipe apart from the appreciative slurpings of my offspring, although that may be to do with the sherry in the sauce.
Cooking The Books hadn’t even gone off simmer when MarbleCity announced their upcoming 2014 anthology Edge of Passion, again with guest pieces and competition winners, nineteen authors in total. As I twirled my locks trying to work out how to get out of this predicament, Marble pressed ahead with another short story collection Twelve Curious Deaths in France from their new signing, Emmy nominee John Goldsmith, and the literary standard of John’s stories left me feeling inadequate – like a boy who has long fantasised about a sexual encounter with his friend’s mother and finally gets her in the right place only to find that he hasn’t yet grown a single hair under his arms and his motorbike engine won’t start when he turns the key.
My contribution to Edge of Passion? Yet another cheat to fit the crime / mystery / romantic suspense brief. I took a little known but personal favourite chapter from The Baptist and worked it up into The Heirloom. A jolly little suicide pact by a couple of octogenarians. I felt like a person who deliberately mishears the lyrics of pop songs and regurgitates them to suit the moment. I’m a fake. I’m a weirdo. What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here – Radio Fred.
Inspired by this trail of anthology destruction, portrayed by me as evidence of my literary success, the Original Sins authors have decided to go for obscure validation once more and will hit the road with a new collection, this time to be e-published. No escape for yours truly, I have to contribute and this time, finally, I have written a new piece. I know they are all going to be cheery and happy smiling people holding hands stories, so mine is a funereal ditty wherein John Baptist doesn’t outlive his brother but delivers a reverse eulogy from his open casket – like a predictable vampire who is really a comedian vampire because, when all his vampire-doubting relatives come to his monthly fake funeral, he likes to lie in the coffin then jump up and say boo.
Now, there are rumours abroad that the Electric Authors are planning another foray into the anthology outback. But they are just rumours. Which isn’t the same as gossip – like an apple isn’t a pear, even though they are both fruit.
So, back to the title of this post from which I had wandered like a man sent upstairs to get his wife a scarf and coming back down with no trousers on. Has e-publishing breathed new life into the Frankenstein concept of the anthology? Like an Amazonian warrior giving mouth-to-mouth to a hideous monster made of salvaged body parts even though some of the vital ones are missing? Have low production costs, digital technology and social media made story collections more accessible? Like a shopper who suddenly discovers healthy eating and says look, there are chick-peas, alfalfa sprouts and mung beans available in my local store when, in fact, there have always been chick-peas, alfalfa sprouts and mung beans in their local store, well at least for the last few years. Does the modern e-book reader have the memory span of a goldfish and prefer short things? Like how a very short man will look at a very tall man on a bicycle and laugh at how ridiculously high the tall man has set the saddle so that it looks like a monocycle, except it has two wheels? I say yes, if you sit on that metaphorical saddle and your knees touch the ground then either your bike is too small, your legs are abnormally long or it’s not yours and you’ve stolen it from a child. Anthologies are great for quick reading opportunities on mobile devices. Bikes are not for giants.